Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Children - and Teens - NEED Fiction!

"Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon's lair but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons." 
- C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
I am what you might call a Common Core moderate. Unlike many of Common Core's opponents, I am not wholly opposed to standardized testing; indeed, at my day job, we use standardized tests all the time to track our students' progress, and I have found them to be very useful tools indeed. I am also not concerned about a "corporate takeover" of public education; this thread in the opposition's rhetoric, I feel, is overly paranoid and imputes motives to Bill Gates and his compatriots that probably do not exist. I am concerned about fuzzy math and lousy English textbooks, but those pre-dated the implementation of Common Core and shouldn't necessarily be conflated with the standards themselves.

Still, I do think Common Core gets it wrong in many respects -- and among its missteps is its over-emphasis on informational text.

I understand the intent behind this emphasis. As I've observed in previous posts, children do in fact need to be exposed to a solid foundation of content knowledge in history, science, and math in order to be literate citizens. I'll also grant that the authors of the CCSS wanted the responsibility for the informational text requirements to be spread across the curriculum and not confined to Language Arts. This ideal, however, is turning out to be near impossible to implement. STEM teachers in particular are understandably resistant to the additional demands; who has the time to teach our students how to read Euclid or Newton when we have to, I don't know, actually teach our students some science and math? Thus, in practice, literary fiction is being crowded out of the Language Arts curriculum -- and this could have potentially disastrous results for our students. It's all well and good to be "college and career ready" (whatever that means), but what about being decent-and-functional-human-being ready?

'Tis true that very few are called upon to read fiction at their places of work -- but once again, the purpose of an education is not simply to raise competent employees. There are - and should be - emotional and moral components as well. Children and teens need to learn how to self-regulate, how to delay gratification, and how to muscle on after a set-back. They need to learn temperance, prudence, fortitude, and other important virtues. They need to learn the standards of our civil society, including genuine tolerance, personal responsibility, and the importance of showing charity to one's neighbors. And there is no better way to communicate these critical values than through the medium of the story.

Once upon a time, the power of the story was considered axiomatic; C.S. Lewis certainly displays this understanding in crafting the character of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, whose initial disdain for the imaginative leaves him, in a crucial way, handicapped. Divorce children from fiction and you divorce them from an age-old and profoundly humane means of tackling the world's great ethical and psychological challenges. You can send kids to an anti-bullying assembly and tell them to be kind to others -- or you can invite them to consider the hidden worth of their peers by reading "The Ugly Duckling." You can tell your child that there are no monsters waiting for him under his bed and he has no need to fear -- or you can read him a fanciful tale in which monsters are confronted and defeated. You can tell your teen that other people can be misguided, troubled, or difficult and yet still be worthy of your compassion -- or you can read To Kill a Mockingbird. In each case, the second course is far more likely to be effective than the first. Metaphor and dramatization have a knack for worming into a young heart that no didactic lecture can possibly match. That's why, since the dawn of language itself, human society has been awash in folk tales, legends, and myths.   

And contra the CCSS's claims, the need for literary fiction remains constant as children mature. Older adolescents may no longer be frightened of bedroom beasties, but they are getting ready to enter adult society, where, as responsible citizens, they will have to grapple with the Great Conversation about what makes us human. Even a plumber or an engineer needs to know something about that conversation to make informed decisions in the public square -- and it is in the world's literature that these ruminations and debates can be found, not in technical reports from the Bureau of Land Management.

So yes: Make sure children get a solid grounding of factual knowledge across the domains of history, science, and math, but don't downplay or ignore the very real - and positive - impact the study of literary fiction has on the developing psyche -- and on our society as a whole. 

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